Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-09-18
Editorial: As LAG approaches 50, we maintain our commitment to improving access to justice
Marc Bloomfield
Description: 50 pic Vjom istock
When Andrew Phillips called a meeting in 1971, because he was so upset about the perilous state of legal aid, he would not have imagined that the landscape could get any worse. He also would not have imagined that LAG, which was formed as a result of the meeting, would still be going strong, and still needed, 50 years later.
The 1970s was a very special time – there was an explosion of legislation protecting rights: the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Rent Act 1977. In the US, there was a ‘war on poverty’ and policies had begun to form around community lawyers. This fed into the development of the Law Centres movement and community lawyers in the UK. Peter Kandler calls it ‘bringing law to the people’. He set up the first Law Centre in North Kensington in 1970, just a few years before the construction of Grenfell Tower, and just down the road from the Mangrove Café. Peter told me that he learnt his socialism through listening to lectures by EP Thompson, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawn in a small café in Soho called the Partisan (see July/August 2020 Legal Action 8).
Almost 50 years on from its formation, it feels very special that LAG is still advocating for the same vision: a fair legal system that excludes no one, upholds equality and social justice, and meets the needs of the people it serves – and also very special that we have a new patron, Professor Leslie Thomas QC, to take us into our 50th year (see page 4 of this issue). He grew up in North Kensington, at the time Peter was setting up the Law Centre and as Grenfell was being built. I met him in November on Zoom (as he was in the Caribbean) to listen to his journey to law for the latest in my ‘At the bar’ series (which appears in this issue). I was left feeling inspired – not just by his many achievements, but because of his passion to convey his skill and knowledge – to pass the baton – to the next generation of lawyers. There is a symmetry to Leslie representing 23 of the survivors and bereaved families and loved ones in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
I was joint editor of Legal Aid Matters in 2019 (to mark 70 years since royal assent was given to the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949) which LAG agreed to publish (an eBook is available to download for free). It was while editing the booklet that we came across the Mangrove Nine case, which Bindmans solicitor Jessie Brennan chose for her favourite legal aid case. As part of the Nine’s radical legal strategy, two of them represented themselves while others had legal representation and the benefit of legal aid (Leslie and I discuss the case and the importance of tactics in ‘At the bar’). After 55 days, all nine were acquitted of the principal charge of incitement to riot and, crucially, the judge stated that the trial had ‘regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides’ – this was the first judicial acknowledgment of racial hatred in the Metropolitan Police and marked a historic moment in the fight against institutional racism.
It was also while editing Legal Aid Matters that it struck me how those long-fought-for rights would have had little meaning without legal aid, which brings rights to life. It was also crucial to share information and knowledge. As Andrew Phillips said when we met (as LAG turned 45 – see December 2017/January 2018 Legal Action 10), LAG evolved because ‘the world was getting ever more complicated and the citizens’ need for access to legal advice ever more frequent’. The first director, Susan Marsden-Smedley, said: ‘The Bulletin was what it was all about: educating lawyers and others involved in advice-giving, and getting out the information on issues that chiefly affected the poor.’ Nothing has changed, really. The magazine still has essential legal updates in its pages, and our books and training are designed to give you the skills as well as the law.
LAG continues to be a tool for those defending legal rights. We have exciting plans to celebrate our 50th birthday, but we also want to know from you what you need from us for the next 50 years – and will be asking you to tell us. We want LAG to be as relevant to the new generation of social justice legal aid lawyers and advisers as it was in 1972. Sharing information sits at the very heart of what we do. With knowledge comes power.